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White v. Beal

filed: May 5, 1977.

RALPH WHITE; WILLIAM B. JOHNSON; AND PHILADELPHIA WELFARE RIGHTS ORGANIZATION; ET AL., ON BEHALF OF THEMSELVES AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, APPELLEES
v.
FRANK S. BEAL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE; GLENN JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DIRECTOR, BUREAU OF MEDICAL ASSISTANCE, DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE; DON JOSE STOVALL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE PHILADELPHIA COUNTY BOARD OF ASSISTANCE; THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WELFARE; AND THE PHILADELPHIA COUNTY BOARD OF ASSISTANCE, APPELLANTS



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. Civil No. 75-11).

Seitz, Chief Judge, Van Dusen and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Weis

Opinion OF THE COURT

WEIS, Circuit Judge.

In administering its federally aided medical assistance program, Pennsylvania chose to limit its expenditures for eyeglasses by making them available on the basis of etiology rather than medical necessity. The district court determined that the classification was in conflict with the underlying federal statute, and enjoined application of the restrictive state regulations. We affirm.

The plaintiff class is composed of individuals generally qualifying for benefits under Pennsylvania's medical assistance program established under Title XIX of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1396, et seq. The class members are poor persons who, though not suffering from eye disease, need eyeglasses to correct refractive error. Under the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare's regulations, eyeglasses are provided only for treatment of eye disease or pathology.*fn1 Accordingly, the state refused to furnish this benefit to plaintiffs.

Suit was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the district court against the officials who administer the state program, alleging violations of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and asserting a pendent federal statutory claim. The district court decided the pendent claim and, concluding that the state regulations were in conflict with the federal statute and regulations, entered summary judgment for the plaintiffs. White v. Beal, 413 F. Supp. 1141 (E.D. Pa. 1976).

The defendants vigorously contest jurisdiction on the ground that the plaintiffs' constitutional claims obviously lack merit. The district court, following the procedure set out in Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 39 L. Ed. 2d 577, 94 S. Ct. 1372 (1974), determined first that the plaintiffs' constitutional claims had at least "arguable merit," and then proceeded to a consideration of the statutory claim which proved to be dispositive.

In Hagans v. Lavine, supra, a welfare recipient challenged a state regulation which allowed recoupment for improper rent payments on the grounds that it violated the Equal Protection and Supremacy Clauses. The Supreme Court found the Equal Protection claim not "'so insubstantial, implausible, foreclosed by prior decisions of this Court or otherwise completely devoid of merit as not to involve a federal controversy. . . .'" 415 U.S. at 543, (quoting Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, 414 U.S. 661, 666-667, 39 L. Ed. 2d 73, 94 S. Ct. 772 (1974)). Thus, there was power to entertain the Equal Protection claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3). Such jurisdiction having been established, the pendent conflict between the state regulations and federal statute could be adjudicated without deciding the constitutional issues. 415 U.S. at 543-550.

In the case sub judice, the plaintiffs allege a denial of Equal Protection because the state regulations establish an irrational, invidious classification that serves no legitimate public interest. After the district court entered judgment in the case at bar, we decided Williams v. Wohlgemuth, 540 F.2d 163, 166 (3d Cir. 1976), where we said:

"Even'in the area of economics and social welfare," state laws and regulations must still "be rationally based and free from invidious discrimination."' We cannot say that the emergency assistance plan adopted by Pennsylvania is so unquestionably rational that the constitutional challenge is wholly insubstantial." (footnotes omitted)

Williams ' Equal Protection analysis controls the jurisdictional question, and we need not rely solely on the Due Process approach utilized by the district court.

The complaint alleges that:

"Defendants [sic] practice of providing remedial eye care only to medical assistance recipients having eye pathology sets up two groups of such recipients who, although similarly situated, are treated differently without any rational basis therefore. First, there are those people with visual impairment and having pathology who do receive remedial eye care; second, there are those people with an ...


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